One of China’s four Buddhist mountains, the five flat peaks of WUTAI SHAN (五台山, wŭtái shān) – the name means “Five-terrace Mountain” – rise around 3000m above sea level in the northeastern corner of Shanxi province, near the border with Hebei. The long bus ride here is rewarded with fresh air, superb scenery, some fascinating temple architecture and a spiritual (if not always peaceful) tone.
Though increasingly accessible today, the mountain’s formerly remote location has always given it a degree of protection, and many of Wutai Shan’s forty temples have survived the centuries intact – one reason why the mountains gained World Heritage status in 2009. The monastic village of Taihuai is the focus, sitting in a depression surrounded by the five holy peaks; highlights are its ninth-century revolving bookcase of the Tayuan Si and two ancient temples, the Song-dynasty Foguang and the Tang-dynasty Nanchan. All the temples today are working and full of resident clergy, despite an escalating number of tour groups trudging around them in peak season – though you’ll also see a surprising number of ordinary Chinese people here as pilgrims, thumbing rosaries and prostrating themselves on their knees as they clamber up the temples’ steep staircases.
The hordes of tourists that descend upon Wutai Shan in warmer months sometimes put paid to genuine feelings of remoteness. Crowds die down between October and April, though you will have to come prepared for some low temperatures and possible blizzards. Whatever the time of year, don’t hike off into the hills around Taihuai without some warm, weatherproof gear, food and water, and a torch, even though in good weather the trails here present no special difficulties. Allow plenty of time for hikes, as the paths are hard to find in the dark and even in summer the temperature drops sharply at sundown.
Wutai Shan was an early bastion of Buddhism in China, a religious centre at least since the reign of Emperor Ming Di (58–75 AD). At that time, a visiting Indian monk had a vision in which he met Manjusri (Wenshu), the Buddhist incarnation of Wisdom, who is usually depicted riding a blue lion and carrying a manuscript (to represent a sutra) and a sword to cleave ignorance. By the time of the Northern Wei, Wutai Shan was a prosperous Buddhist centre, important enough to be depicted on a mural at the Dunhuang Caves in Gansu. The mountain reached its height of popularity in the Tang dynasty, when there were more than two hundred temples scattered around its peaks. In the fifteenth century, the founder of the Yellow Hat order, now the dominant Buddhist sect in Tibet, came to the area to preach; Manjusri is particularly important in Tibetan and Mongolian Buddhism, and Wutai Shan remains an important pilgrimage place for Lamaists.